There’s a shell game in government that makes it nearly impossible for you and I to stop the runaway spending. Worse, it’s designed to get you to focus on a seemingly insoluble problem far away, while the real solution lies just down the street, practically in your own backyard.
Let me use the concrete example of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, to show how this masterful diversion plays out. I’m sure it works much the same where you live. [Disclosure: I'm currently running for Lehigh County executive, which is why I'm learning about this.]
How they avoid tar and feathers
Three-quarters of the Lehigh County budget ($305 million) is “pass-through” money that comes from the state and federal governments. We send our money to Gov. Ed Rendell. He launders it, it shrinks, and then he sends it back to us with careful instructions on how we may use it. There are 67 counties in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that operate by the same principle. Multiply that by 3,141 counties (or parishes, etc.) nationwide and you get a sense of the scope and impact.
Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham has increased spending by $60 million since 2006 and plans to bump it up another $7.6 million in 2010. If he had to raise local property taxes to do that, he’d still be picking tar and feathers out of his ears and armpits.
However, because $35 million of that increase came in the form of “pass through” dollars, at “no cost” (as he says) to county taxpayers, he’s hailed as a hero, a fiscal genius, and a sound business manager. The rest of the increase, by the way, came out of the county’s reserve funds at “no-cost” to local taxpayers — at least until that piggy bank is empty in 2011.
How could we let this happen?
Most folks have no idea what’s happening in their county government. Virtually no local journalists delve into the details of the budget. They’re spoon-fed talking points by elected officials. They faithfully regurgitate that PR pabulum and call it “news.”
Let’s look at the real impact of this shell game — both locally and on a broader scale.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania currently suffers a $3.5 billion deficit, and the federal government is broke as well. So where did Gov. Rendell get the $305 million that he’s sending to Lehigh County this year?
Answer: From your future tax increase.
The devastation of “free money”
With thousands of local politicians like Don Cunningham nationwide telling their constituents they’ve brought home “free money,” the impact on state and national spending is staggering. When we don’t pay for local services with local dollars, we simply pass the cost on to a government with broader taxing and borrowing power. In reality, the majority of local government expenditures are put on what we might call a “Capitol One Visa” — the credit card that jeopardizes the financial stability of the entire nation.
But for your own local “Don Cunningham” character, there’s no downside, no blame, no accountability. We applaud him for the very actions that will devastate and bankrupt our nation.
The inequity of getting our “fair share”
To hear them tell it, members of Congress, state legislators, county officials, and school board members are just trying to make sure their constituents get their “fair share.” Local politicians say they’re simply complying with state mandates and trying to avoid a local tax increase. And all of this has been done in the name of fairness (an idea no one may oppose), redistributing the wealth evenly over the population of the state or nation.
But there’s no equitable or rational process for divvying up the so-called “fair shares.” Instead, local projects become bargaining chips among lawmakers, pressured by lobbyists. The lobbyists represent those who stand to gain the most from the projects — the vendors and the people who want to receive free stuff from the government.
Any salesman can tell you that it’s much easier to sell to someone who’s using other people’s money to pay, especially if the other people aren’t in the room to hear the pitch.
You don’t have to compete on price. You just have to convince the customer that it will make him look good and get him reelected. Lawmakers receive an endless parade of people seeking government contracts or free services. Notably missing from the parade are the people who will pay for all of it.
The secret of remote-control government
Most local projects and programs would never happen if local officials had to convince local people to pay for them with local taxes. Here’s the secret of what I call “remote-control government.” It allows local politicians to pose for photographs, heroically handing out giant checks for programs and projects with “no cost” to local taxpayers.
There’s no chance that the right projects and programs will get done for the right reasons. There’s no chance that any of it will be done in a fiscally responsible manner.
We have created a profession — politics — in which the professionals acquire and maintain power and wealth through their ability to “bring home the bacon” for their constituents, whom they view as ignorant and helpless.
The politician’s self-interest drives him to secure ever-increasing revenue (higher taxes) to ensure he has ever-increasing power to advance his career through bargaining with colleagues to bring home more bacon to his district.
Politicians must think we can’t figure out that the money they’re bringing home comes from our wallets, passes through a series of middlemen who all take their cut, returns to us greatly diminished, and gets used for purposes beyond our control. In addition, most of the spending goes to programs that are demonstrable failures or for which no success benchmark exists.
In this way, the locus of accountability has been moved so far away from your home that you have virtually no say in how your money is spent. That’s remote-control government. Your county government has little control over what happens locally. Its autonomy and your liberty have been traded away in exchange for the perpetual political incumbency that comes from handing out giant checks from afar.
Enough is enough!
Of course, this shell game wasn’t born yesterday. Our nation was forged in revolution when the colonists said “enough is enough” to a remote ruler who taxed them while giving them no say in how their money was spent:
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Those today who would have you sit down and shut up will argue that we have not been reduced under “absolute Despotism.” You’re not being shot in the streets by government troops or jailed for expressing free speech. No, today’s abuses and usurpations are far more subtle, and the abusers and usurpers far more clever.
These velvet despots murmur sweet nothings in your ear, like Delilah wooing Samson, and as you slumber they quietly cut off the source of your power. When you finally wake up, you find yourself chained to a turnstile, working for them.
It’s time to “throw off” such government, and to provide new guards for our future security. I’m not talking about armed revolt. As the new usurpers rule without employing physical force, so the new revolutionaries rebel without shouldering firearms.
Where to focus your energy
Here’s the counter-intuitive part. Even though the most massive spending gets authorized in Washington D.C., that’s not where we should focus our most vigorous efforts.
Believe it or not, it’s in the best interest of the usurper to keep our outrage focused on Capitol Hill or on the White House, because we can have little impact there. We can try to prune the branches, but they’ll just grow back and spawn more bitter fruit. We need to start with the root system.
Go to your county government website today and download the budget. If it’s not there, call and request a copy. (Be careful. When I called, they offered to sell me one for 25-cents per page — 897 pages = $224.25. If they have a PDF version, they must provide it at a nominal fee or free.) Recruit some friends who understand how to run a business and comb through that document together. Gather over dessert and have fun with this. Get the children involved. Create a local blog and post your findings. Send letters to the local media about it. Write to your county leaders requesting answers to the questions your study has raised.
Demand documentation on the actual results of government human services spending. Work with others in the community to find local solutions for local needs and to restore individual liberty and accountability.
Tell your county leaders to stop soliciting remote funding for ongoing local programs. When they pose for photos handing over giant checks, you show up and present them with a giant withdrawal slip, symbolizing our intention to take our money back from remote-control government.
Focus on maximum impact
Pay attention to what’s happening in Washington, D.C., and your state capital, but don’t get distracted from your mission. Focus on the place where you can have the most impact.
We must let our local government officials know that we’re wise to the shell game and that there is no free lunch.
If they don’t get the message, throw them out of office and elect citizens who will restore common sense to government. (Hint: They won’t get the message. You may as well start by throwing them out.)
Finally, don’t rule out the possibility that the “common sense citizen” who should step up and run for local office might just be … you.